The shamash is the hidden light within us


By Rabbi Corey Helfand

This week’s Torah portion is Miketz, Genesis 41:1 – 44:17.

I have always found it interesting that we light the Chanukah candles using the shamash, a helper candle, rather than from a match or by simply lighting the Chanukah candle itself.

Why is there a need to have this helper candle in the first place? It’s almost like the shamash got the raw end of the deal, functioning like a custodian rather than being included in the light of “pirsumei nissa — publicizing the miracle.”

When we concluded Parshat Vayeshev last week, Joseph was left forgotten, alone in jail. The chief cupbearer who had received a favorable dream interpretation from Joseph and was restored to his post, had promised to remember Joseph and free him from prison. Yet, it seems like the light that Joseph had spread to the cupbearer had been extinguished.

At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, it is nearly two years later. Pharaoh was awakened in the middle of the night having dreamed an awful dream. The next night he was haunted by another nightmare.

In search of an explanation, the cupbearer finally remembered Joseph and encouraged Pharaoh to release him from prison so that he could interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. Joseph comes to rescue, restoring hope to the Egyptians by offering a plan to help the country through seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine.

More amazing than Joseph’s comprehensive strategy to help the world through a global famine is that Joseph relies on God as the source of help. Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I have had a dream, but no one can interpret it.” Joseph quickly responds, “God will see to Pharaoh’s welfare.”

Once the interpretations were revealed, Pharaoh said to his courtiers, “Could we find another like him, a man in whom is the spirit of God — ruach Elohim?” (Genesis 41: 16, 38). Not only does Joseph realize that his ability to illuminate the world through a period of darkness comes from God, but Pharaoh does, too.

Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, of the New North London Synagogue in England, teaches that “there is a vessel within each of us, the contents of which are simply not susceptible to contamination, a part of us that remains eternally pure. It is there that we must go to seek the oil that burns with a pure and sacred flame. The difficulty is to find it…We have a certain purity that cannot be sullied. Light it, and it burns with a sacred radiance…We have to struggle to find that flame; it is far more often lost than found. In silence, in beauty, in prayer, in the example of good people, we discover it and may be consoled by the reminder that, though hidden, it is never utterly or irretrievably lost.”

For me, this is what the shamash represents. It is the vessel, given to us by God, allowing each of us to illuminate and brighten the world. Joseph’s journey is an example of what it means to find our way through the darkness. With God’s help, Joseph becomes a shamash. The shamash is the catalyst for bringing about radiance and beauty, hope and promise.

Without the shamash, we wouldn’t be able to light the candles and publicize the miracle of Chanukah. We wouldn’t be able to celebrate the victory of the Maccabees. We wouldn’t be able to see the miracles that exist throughout our lifetimes.

Perhaps the true miracle of Chanukah is revealed when we recognize our capacity to reveal the light that God has given us from within.

Rabbi Corey Helfand leads Ohr Kodesh Congregation in Chevy Chase.

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